While going through and readings of “Benito Cereno,” and The Heroic Slave, I see that both have strong themes oriented towards saying “Hey we all are human beings alright.” These two texts go about sending this message in different ways. Melville shows the side of the story through the perspective of an American captain and Douglass is more direct, emphasizing the slave’s perspective.
With Melville’s piece, you see the messages he trying to send more with irony and indirection. It is important to bring up the perspective of who the story follows because that helps explain why some of the language the way it is. Following Captain Delano or Benito, we see that he is a man who does not seem to have any problems with owning slaves of any kinds. You can see this when he first describes the ship, “ ‘this ship, well officered and well manned, with several cabin passengers—some fifty Spaniards in all—sailed from Buenos Ayres bound to Lima, with a general cargo, hardware, Paraguay tea and the like—and,’ pointing forward, ‘that parcel of negroes, now not more than a hundred and fifty, as you see, but then numbering over three hundred souls” (170). He sees slaves as “parcels” like something that is wrapped up and delivered. These slaves are just considered to be part of the “general cargo”. This is normalizing and alienating slaves from the idea that they are people. The language this text uses depicts the slaves as objects rather than people. This is where the irony is because we know this is not to be true, people are people. The slaves also are seen as the bad guys for rebelling but like we did in class they really are not. Any person or people in that situation would do the same and the fact Delano did not even consider this as a possibility shows how the text is pointing out these ideas through character interactions.
Douglass’s piece is more direct in its antislavery approach; Madison is highlighted to be one of the best men ever. The best instances I see are at the very beginning and the end. At the beginning, when Mr. Listwell describes seeing Madison and hearing his speech, he goes on a whole rant about Madison, comparing him to a hero: ”his whole appearance betonkened Herculean strength” (7). Even more direct, Madison’s name is revealed in parenthesis next to it it says, “for that was the name of the hero” (6). It is very clear that Madison is great and then you even have the fact that his last name is Washington, a name of one of the greatest men in American history. Then at the end, you have Madison capturing the ship with his fellow freed slaves and not even kill anyone he does not have to. He is a man if I ever (read?) one. Through actions and the language in the text, Douglass directly undermines the dehumanization of enslaved peoples.
Significantly, both texts depict slave rebellions at sea. This is important because the sea is a place of survival and when you are not on land owned by any nation, you have a place where only the people on a ship interact with each other and their humanity comes out.